Basketball / Euroleague / Dr. Real and Mr. Madrid

Maccabi's rival counts on Fernandez and Mirotic, but even coach Laso doesn't know what to expect from his other players. When they are on form, no team can touch them. But what about on an off day?

If scientists were to focus their intellectual abilities on such a bizarre issue, one day they would surely discover a strange gene hiding in coaches' DNA. This specific gene causes one to immediately forget victories and happy moments, and instead warn everybody about the next rival while they are still celebrating.

David Blatt is far from being the sole carrier of this yet-undiscovered gene. Last Thursday, moments after the victory that secured home court advantage in the quarter-finals series, Pablo Laso, Real Madrid's coach, echoed one of Blatt's well known routines.

"Maccabi Tel Aviv has an excellent squad and in many aspects a very polished game," Laso said, reciting the expected lines. "Maccabi uses a wide rotation, as is Blatt's custom, and changing defensive strategies. In order to win the series, we will have to do everything right."

Without the obnoxious gene, Laso would have probably added the words "like we did tonight," to his last sentence. Last Thursday's game, in which Real thrashed Anadolu Efes 86-66, offered a glimpse of Real's huge potential in Euroleague terms. Guards that shoot from the outside in high percentages, a defense that can hold the rivals on 30 points per half, and the ability to create moves that exploit home court advantage. On the other hand, Laso might simply not be to sure as to which Real Madrid will show up for the series, the one that steamrolled the Turkish team or the miserable bunch of players that wore the white stripe during the last month.

"If the series against Maccabi would kick off two months ago, Real would be the obvious favorite," says Spanish journalist Viktor Garcia. "But the momentum of the two teams has changed. Lately, Maccabi is improving weekly, while Real, which started the season in fantastic form, has been playing badly ever since the Spanish Cup loss to Barcelona in the beginning of February. Therefore the winner of the series depends mostly on Real's form."

A team with mood swings, even with a deep roster, depends first and foremost on its stars. Rudy Fernandez, playing with a price tag of 2.7 million euros, usually justifies his cost, and in general seems to enjoy every moment in Madrid. This shouldn't come as a surprise after he was repressed during four lustless seasons in the NBA. Nikola Mirotic, who was at his best against Maccabi last season, has become a firm favorite in the Chicago Bulls' fans' forums, after being picked in the 2011 draft.

Still, looking further down the roster, Real can't afford to be that confident. There are nights when Sergio Llull and Jaycee Carroll are unstoppable, but they also have long periods on court when it seems that they do absolutely nothing of worth. Sergio Rodriguez, a human yo-yo in many ways, seems to frustrate the rivals on one offensive drive and then compensate them in the next. The supporting crew – Marcus Slaughter, Felipe Reyes, Carlos Suarez, Mirza Begic and Rafael Hettsheimer – is usually never more than just that: a supporting crew. Rarely does one of these really demonstrate anything to write home about.

This hierarchy, talented and deep but often fragile, is the reason for the Dr. Real and Mr. Madrid symptom often observed in the Spanish capital. Real began the season beautifully on all fronts, and still leads the Spanish league with an impressive 25-2 record, but the last two months proved that the team is given to severe mood swings. There was that Copa del Rey defeat to Barcelona (after two overtime periods), and in the second half of March the team lost three consecutive games in the Euroleague within two weeks, twice at home. "These were probably are worst minutes at home this season," Laso said after the defeat to Malaga. "The players must understand that at Real Madrid every moment on court counts. Not all of the players have really internalized that. "

Laso himself does not suffer from that symptom. As a player in Real Madrid in the 1990s, he accumulated 61 caps for the national team and has a reputation for his belief in hard work, in a manner that he could actually demand royalties for the expression "giving 100 percent in every game." Ironically, even if he manages to bring his players to the required mental condition, he himself could bring their downfall as far as his tactics, in a way not dissimilar to his teams relative frailty in the paint. Last season, his first in the Euroleague, Real couldn't get past the Top Sixteen. Even with his added experience he is still inferior to Blatt in this aspect.

"Everybody here admires Blatt since he led Russia to victory in the 2007 Eurobasket, beating Spain in the finals in Madrid," Garcia says. "Blatt is one of the top coaches in Europe, and from this aspect Maccabi has a clear advantage."

Still one wonders if that sums up Maccabi's advantages. Real's game against Efes might prove that the Spanish team has overcome its crisis at the right time, so that as far as momentum, it's hard to call. With the home advantage and the deeper, more talented squad, Maccabi cannot be regarded as a favorite to win the series, even when one considers the vast improvement over the past two months.

"I would bet on Real," Garcia says, "because of the home advantage and their advantage when comparing player to player in the various positions. Maccabi's offensive resources are mainly Smith, Hickman and James, and with all due respect to the latter's capabilities, Maccabi lacks someone who will take advantage of Real's relative lack of height and weight in the paint. On the other hand, if Real plays as it did in the weeks before the game against Anadolu, Maccabi will have opportunities to win. "
 

AFP
AFP
Nir Keidar